Video Vault: Demolition of Cleveland 'money house' sets off 1979 free-for-all

Close to $100,000 found in abandoned home

CLEVELAND - In researching a story on Lawson’s (the stores that had the glass milk jugs and Big O orange juice), I came across a note about kids using $100 bills to buy candy at their west side Lawson’s store.

The home at 6304 Ellen Avenue was being demolished in early April of 1979. When workers began to tear down the house, they discovered the walls of the abandoned home were filled with money. There were treasury bills in denominations as large as hundreds. As word got out, people swarmed the property and the treasure hunt was on.

Our video player contains about a minute of video of people digging through the rubble of the home. The mayhem occurring on Ellen Avenue looks like a scene from the 1963 epic comedy film, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." A man swings a pick, others lift debris by hand and they were finding money!

My co-worker Leon Bibb was new to Cleveland television in 1979, having joined WKYC from WCMH in Columbus. He took a call that day from a clerk at Lawson’s who said all these kids were buying candy and using big bills.

Leon went to investigate and, sure enough, it was true. The kids didn’t know what street it was where the “money house” was located at, but they would take him there.

Workers told Leon they had taken buckets of money that had fallen out of the walls. Leon broke the story and even appeared on NBC's "Today Show" telling of the Ellen Avenue tale.

Leon had the jump on us here at WEWS, but even after his story aired, we were able to catch footage of the money grab continuing.

An Associated Press story from April 6, 1979 said the house was owned by Albert Fletcher, who died in 1964. He owned several houses in Cleveland and not long after his 1964 death, almost $200,000 was found in a junk-filled house not far from the site of the 1979 windfall.

It was estimated between $80,000 and $100,000 in 50-year-old treasury bills were taken out of the Ellen Avenue home by workers and residents in 1979. According to the AP story, Fletcher’s nephew, Halvor Holbeck, said his uncle didn’t trust banks.

“He wouldn’t tell you how much money he had, but he never spent any,” Holbeck said. “We used to tell him, ‘Fred, put your money in a safety box. Don’t leave it around the house.'”

Leon said officials from the FBI, Treasury Department and Secret Service showed up to investigate, but since the money wasn't part of a crime or counterfeit, people were able to keep the cash.

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